What should you do if your middle schooler is bored at school? The most common reason, experts say, that students complain they are bored, is that they are not being challenged at school.

But before you rush to sign your student up for advanced courses, it’s a good idea to confer with his teacher first to see if there aren’t other reasons for his boredom and ways that his teacher can help. It could mean he is overwhelmed at school, and that he is just tuning out because he doesn’t know where to begin. Or perhaps he is feeling isolated, missing the individualized attention he got from his teacher in elementary school.

If the reason for his boredom is the most common one, that he is not being challenged, there are options available, possibly at the school he attends or in your local community, and definitely online. Summer programs geared to gifted students provide another option. Perhaps he has already taken all the math or foreign language classes available at his school. Or maybe he has a burning interest in philosophy or advanced music, and there aren’t classes to match his interests at the middle school. Gifted and Talented (GATE) programs at your school, classes at the local high school, online programs, special summer programs and university programs can be solutions to keep your student who needs more challenges engaged.

Is your child gifted?

Most schools do testing to determine if students should be identified as gifted. Check with the school your child attends. Ask your child’s teacher, guidance counselor, and/or principal what options are available. Does your school offer a GATE Program where students take special challenging classes either during the year or during the summer? An International Baccalaureate Program? Can students take advanced classes at the local high school or community college?

The Virtual High School (VHS) offers courses online. They have identified several of their high school courses that are appropriate for gifted middle school students as well as several courses that are open to all students. The courses available are typically ones not available at your local school, such as “Ethical Dilemmas for Middle Schoolers,” and “Ancient History of the ’50s and ’60s: When Your Parents Were Young.” Typically, a school will pay a fee and sign up to have access to their online curriculum. As part of the agreement, one teacher at the school will agree to teach an online course for VHS and receive their professional development program in online education. Courses are also available for homeschoolers.

The Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Johns Hopkins University conducts a nationwide Talent Search for gifted youth. The program is ongoing throughout the school year. It identifies, assesses, and recognizes students with exceptional mathematical and/or verbal reasoning abilities. The Talent Search gives students the opportunity to take a test designed for older students which will reveal more about their academic abilities and will allow them to compare their results with those of other highly able students. They will also learn about educational options and opportunities for students with similar abilities, and they will receive recognition for their outstanding achievements.

Advanced options aren’t just for gifted students

While many schools offer special programs for students identified as gifted, there are other programs open to any student who can demonstrate that he can succeed at an advanced level.

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in North Carolina, for example, and in many middle schools across the country, advanced middle school students can take higher level math and foreign language courses at their local high school.

This school district, like many, also offers an International Baccalaureate (IB) program at several of its middle schools beginning in grade 6. Students have the option to enroll starting in grade 6 but can enter the program in later grades as well. The IB curriculum is a rigorous international curriculum. Teachers must take required IB training and write specialized curriculum units that encourage critical thinking, interconnectedness among subjects and an appreciation for international education. The middle school curriculum is cross disciplinary with core classes in language and the arts; there are also community service and physical education components.

What type of student is this curriculum appropriate for? “We want students who have a strong commitment to learning, love to excel, can make connections across areas, are curious and critical thinkers, have skills and interest in foreign languages and technology, and understand community service and what it really means,” says Robbie Kale, director of magnet programs for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District. “They have to love to read and write as there are many projects assigned.” The IB curriculum is offered at schools throughout the world; one of the added bonuses of the program is that students can transfer anywhere in the world where an IB curriculum is offered and they should be able to fit right in.

Students who continue on and complete the IB diploma curriculum in their high school years may qualify for an IB diploma, which is highly valued in American universities and throughout the world.

The next place to look is beyond the middle school walls. There may be options at your local high school or community college or through online programs and special summer programs.

Online programs

Online courses work best for self-disciplined, independent learners. Some have an interactive component where others involve just the student and the printed study materials. There are multiple online options available. Here’s a sampling:

Duke University e-Studies (grades 8-12) is an interactive distance learning program. Students connect with instructors, course material and 10-15 classmates from around the world in virtual “classrooms.” Courses run in the fall and spring (16-week sessions), as well as in the summer (8-week session). Students are admitted based on SAT or ACT test scores. Courses cost $750, which includes all text materials. There is an additional $20 application fee. Financial aid is available.

The Center for Distance and Independent Study at the University of Missouri-Columbia is mostly for high school students, but there are a few options – courses such as medieval life, applying the math challenge and creative writing – available for middle school students, too. This is a self-directed program where students can sign up at anytime for the course, and receive print materials (a study guide and text) and take up to nine months to complete the course. Each course for middle school students costs $130, plus varying fees for the print materials, depending on the course selected. Students write papers, do projects and take two proctored exams. (Generally they find someone in their community or school to act as an authorized proctor.)

The Education Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) at Stanford University provides individualized, online instruction for gifted students of all ages, from kindergarten through university level. Students take courses and receive instructional support via telephone, email and a virtual classroom. To qualify for EPGY, students must provide evidence of their intellectual ability, generally a recognized standardized test such as the SAT. Courses range in cost from $495 to $740 and financial aid is available. Students may begin most courses on the first of any month.

Summer Programs

Academically oriented summer programs offer middle schoolers who need more challenges the opportunity to stretch their minds while being in the company of like-minded students. Many local schools and communities offer GATE programs, and some colleges offer residential programs. Summer institutes engage students specifically interested in science or literature.

The Great Books Summer Program offers students in grades 6-12 the opportunity to read and discuss selections from classic and contemporary literature in one- or two-week residential programs with college professors and top faculty at Amherst College and Stanford University. College and graduate students serve as counselors. There is ample time for recreation, too, and students have access to the college pool and other facilities during their stay.

The Acadia Institute of Oceanography, located in Seal Harbor, Maine, offers students with a keen interest in science and studying the ocean a chance to study marine biology through a hands-on curriculum in a residential setting. The introductory program is geared to 10 to 12-year-olds. Students come from all over the country to attend this program. The staff of classroom teachers, practicing scientists and researchers work with students in small groups.

The National Association for Gifted Children has a directory of summer programs for the gifted on their Web site.

The Summer Institute for the Gifted (SIG), in existence since 1984, offers 11 residential sessions in seven states (for grades 4 through 11) and four day programs (up to grade 6 only). Their mission is to provide the highest quality educational and social opportunities for academically gifted and talented students through programs designed to meet their abilities and needs. The program provides students the opportunity to engage with other students who have similar abilities and interests in small classes and also to have individualized learning programs. Residential programs are held at several universities across the country including Amherst College, University of California at Berkeley, Emory University and Vassar College.

The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth offers summer residential and day programs on the east and west coasts for qualified students who have completed grades 5-6. Day site locations (which also include classes for students who have completed grades 2-4) are in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, as well as in West Los Angeles and Pasadena, California. Eligibility for the program is based on what grade the student has completed, as well as his score on the CTY-administered SCAT test. CTY also offers two residential programs for qualified students who have completed grades 7 and above.

Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University offers three-week courses in both Chicago and Cleveland (Case Western Reserve University) during the summer. Fourth through 12th-grade classes are offered in Chicago while 7th through 12th-grade classes are offered in Cleveland. Residential and commuter options are available.

Duke TIPs (Duke University Talent Indentification Programs) are residential summer programs designed to meet the intellectual and social needs of gifted students in grades 7-12. Programs are held on college campuses across the country and in field locations around the world. Financial aid is available for most programs. Students learn highly challenging material at a rate suited to their advanced abilities. Students enroll in a single course for three weeks of in-depth study. Classes of approximately 16 students are taught by highly qualified instructor-teaching assistant teams. Outside the classroom, a carefully selected residential staff supervises students during meals, free time, and social and recreational activities. Program participants experience college classroom instruction and residence hall living. Campuses include Duke University, Duke Marine Lab, Appalachian State University, Davidson College, University of Kansas, and Texas A&M.

The EPGY Summer Institute at Stanford University offers a Summer Institutes Middle School Program (MSP) for ages 11-13 consists of three two-week sessions for students in 6th and 7th grade. The program provides academic enrichment, a taste of college life at Stanford University, and the opportunity to meet others with similar interests and abilities. Students study several related topics within a single subject area.

Next: Your child is gifted… now what?